Repeatability: Once More, With Meaning

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The question of what makes an experience “repeatable” offers a paradox. Humans are stimuli-seeking creatures who crave novel experiences, so usually “repeatability” is couched in terms of how to make an experience different each time. Yet we’re also the same species that invented the auto-loop feature for playing the same song on repeat. When addressing the question of how to design a repeatable experience for our guests with words like “variability” and “interactivity,” I sometimes wonder if we’re over-complicating the answer while still missing an essential ingredient.

For me, the question crystallized last fall after I had been waiting nearly an hour for The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. “Blinding Lights” started playing, again—one of about three hit songs of The Weeknd’s in heavy rotation. I was tired, everyone was tired. But as soon as the familiar beat started for the umpteenth time, half the queue started gently moving to the rhythm, some mouthing along to the lyrics. It didn’t matter that we had all heard it many times before, both in the past hour or over the past years. The repetition was part of the appeal. It was familiar, which made it meaningful.

It was a minor moment, and perhaps unsurprising. Yet it struck me as both a perfect example of what repeatability is, while also being the exact opposite of what we usually mean when we talk about the topic. In our line of work repeatability is quite literally a million-dollar question, as attractions look to extend length of stay and convert one-time visitors into return guests and annual passholders. Often, the question is answered by one of two things: Variability or Interactivity. Allow me to indulge myself as I once again over-complicate the answer.

Scooby-Doo Museum Mysteries Photo Op

Variability aims to sustain the novelty factor across repeat experiences by making the experience different each time. Sometimes this is done with branching storylines. For Scooby-Doo: The Museum of Mysteries at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi (pictured), we designed three separate ride paths that would each encounter different characters and gags. Other times an element of randomness is introduced. Next door, Tom & Jerry: Swiss Cheese Spin was designed as an indoor roller coaster with free spinning vehicles to ensure no two rides are ever the same. (I should know; I took it for a spin close to a hundred times during testing and programming in 2018!) Sometimes the randomness is introduced via programming, such as on the ever-popular Star Tours at the Disney parks, with dozens of possible scenes across four segments randomly assembled into literally hundreds of potential story combinations. 

But a word of warning: “random” does not necessarily mean “different every time.” If an attraction has the possibility of playing one of five different songs during the experience, and guests ride it precisely five times, the probability of hearing a different song each time stands at less than 4%.

Interactivity is a related concept, except it puts the agency of determining variability into the hands of the guests themselves. For The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride at Lionsgate Entertainment World (pictured), we once again created multiple ride paths, which guests could experience during each of their midnight motorbike rides through the virtual reality world. But instead of leaving the paths to chance, here guests were in full control of where they wanted to go.

Interactivity has several powerful advantages over simple random variability when it comes to the question of repeatability. For one, it allows guests to choose exactly how they want their experience to be different from last time… or the same. With gamified interactivity that tracks a score, there’s also an element of mastery and self-improvement—powerful drivers of repeatability because now each subsequent experience is imbued with more personal meaning for the guest.

But there are also pitfalls to interactivity. Learning curves for gamified interactives can negatively impact the first experience in order that the third or fourth might be better… assuming guests will want to repeat it even a second time. In some cases, interactive elements are added as an afterthought and lack meaning. I’ve gone on interactive dark rides where the entire experience is focused on finding and shooting little red blinking lights, completely ignoring the placemaking and storytelling around it.

Neither interactivity nor variability by themselves are a panacea for repeatability. An interactive mechanic of endless repetitive grinding is unlikely to be fulfilling for all but the hardest-core gamers. Random variability can easily turn into indistinguishable static noise if care isn’t taken to create contrast between the differences and give each outcome meaning. That is the key to repeatability: creating experiences that mean something to the guest.

Experiences based on novelty, discovery, and surprise can be deeply meaningful. If there are ways to sustain or even increase those qualities on repeat after the initial surprise or discovery was already revealed, even better. But for many guests, the experiences they most want to repeat over and over (and maybe buy an annual pass for, and eventually bring their children and grandchildren to experience together…) are rarely the ones that simply include randomness for variability’s sake, or grinding gameplay for interactivity’s sake. Repeatability can benefit from variability and interactivity, but sometimes the warm sense of familiarity or the anticipation for a beloved beat can be even more effective at getting people to hit the replay button. A story well-told; a song well-played; an attraction well-crafted—that is what makes an experience meaningful such that guests will ask to hear it again, and again.